On Sunday 17th March 2019 Automatic Train Operation (ATO) was finally, and successfully, introduced on the Sub-Surface Railway (SSR). Next week, or maybe the week after, we’ll put the significance of this in context and look at future planned developments. Meanwhile, if an illustrated article about signals wrapped in black plastic would interest you, read on…

Nice but dull

One of the downsides of modern signalling is that it has none of the visual imagery of the signal gantries of old. The sight of a multitude of signal boxes, each with their own architectural character, has long gone. In most cases this has been replaced by visual displays and a modern signalling centre often looks little different to any other modern office.

Automatic Train Operation usually results in removal of trackside signals though one does not necessarily imply the other. You can replace trackside signals with in-cab signalling and that does not necessarily mean automatic train operation. Conversely, ATO does not necessarily mean the removal of signals though generally, it does.

Central line is the exception

On London Underground, the exception to the general rule is the Central line. Although ATO, this has a form of lineside signalling to inform the driver of the status of the line ahead. However, he/she is not required to ‘observe’ signals in the traditional way.

So it is then, that on the London Underground, Central line excepted, the primary visual clue that a line is automatically operated is the apparent absence of signals.

One small section for auto

ATO is now live on the Hammersmith & City (H&C) and Circle lines between Hammersmith and Latimer Road. That is a mere five stations and ten platforms where train operation is fully automatic (three at Hammersmith, two each at Goldhawk Road, Shepherd’s Bush Market and Wood Lane and one at Latimer Road).

Let us take a look at what has been implemented so far and how it looked on the first day of passenger operation.


Exterior of Hammersmith (Hammersmith & City and Circle lines)

We start our journey at Hammersmith (H&C and Circle lines). This is a delightful little three track terminus. The station was opened out a few years ago by the necessary demolition of the ticket office to enable platforms 1 and 2 to be extended. This, of course, necessitated the construction of a new ticket office which was then closed a few years later.

Here one quickly sees a limitation of the new system, as currently installed. The platform-based passenger information displays helpfully tell you which platform the next train to leave will depart from, but not when.

This, coupled with the train doors closing automatically if left open for 45 seconds without being used, means that people are not passing along the platform to spread the loading on the train.

The rather unusual location of the buffer stops at platform 3

Catering for longer trains also necessitated extending platform 3 into one of the existing buildings, giving the platform a rather unusual feel about it at the buffer end.

Also at Hammersmith and visible before boarding is an often-overlooked feature of implementation of ATO. Existing but redundant notices, as well as signals, have to be ‘bagged’. This generally means liberal use of black plastic to cover them up.

Whilst still at what is traditionally known as the buffer stop, note that the ‘C’ marker to tell drivers where to stop when driving six-car ‘C’ stock is still present, even though the stock was scrapped around five years ago. Note also that the fixed train stop in advance of the train arrestor (buffer) is now redundant. The tripcocks on the trains will be removed once all the relevant lines are fully automated. For the present the trainstops on automated sections will be ‘pegged down’. These will eventually be removed along with the now-bagged signals.

A close up picture of this signal can be found here

Hammersmith station has a nearby former depot visible from the platforms. It is a former depot because trains are now no longer maintained there. Its official designation is now Hammersmith sidings.

Because of the sidings, Hammersmith probably illustrates better than anywhere else the sheer scale of ‘bagging’ required. The signal spacing on Underground lines with manually driven trains are usually very short by railway standards, so a lot of black plastic is required. The expectation is that the signals along with the redundant wiring,  pegged down trainstops and redundant notices will be removed once there is no possibility of going back to the old system. This is because it is good signalling practice to remove redundant kit. The rail crash at Clapham Junction in 1988 provided significant evidence for this, as it was caused by contact of a live signal wire with a newly-redundant one.

Stray plastic on the track at Hammersmith. This should not have happened and the concern is that something is visible that should not be.

Observing a departing train will show the implementation of a newly-activated feature on them. The yellow outside lights are lit up when the associated door is open. Above that is white light which shows that the signalling system tells the train it is ‘ready to depart’. The period between ‘ready to depart’ commencing and the doors closing is very short. London Underground, being London Underground, has actually thoroughly investigated this timing and decided what the ideal length of time is.

Goldhawk Road

The first station north of Hammersmith is Goldhawk Road. The stations on this branch are quite closely spaced but, exceptionally, from Goldhawk Road platforms you can actually see trains depart from the adjacent station (Hammersmith). It is the least used station on the Hammersmith & City line. It is also the first station we encounter which is in the typical Hammersmith branch style – rather basic but functional and painted in dark and light brown as part of its heritage (it was originally a GWR station).

Goldhawk Road. The picture doesn’t really do the station justice. Note the white light above the yellow light on the side of the train

Here the rather basic functionality of the customer information system (platform indicators) is replicated – at least in the northbound (officially eastbound) direction. The destination of the first train is shown and when it approaches you are told that the next train is approaching – and that is it. On the opposite platform the information you would expect is displayed with the first, second and third trains showing, along with their destination (Hammersmith) and how many minutes before their arrival.

Shepherd’s Bush Market

Shepherd’s Bush Market is a station very similar to Goldhawk Road except that it has passengers. The number of passengers may be surprisingly few but this can be explained by the fact that the line was advertised in advance as closed for engineering work the entire weekend.

In fact, there was no engineering work as such – just implementation of the new signalling system and trains were running all weekend. It is just that passengers weren’t allowed to use them between Paddington and Latimer Road until Sunday afternoon. Presumably, it was thought better to close the section from Paddington to Hammersmith rather than allow passengers as far as Ladbroke Grove or Latimer Road and leave those who hadn’t spotted the shortened service stranded there.

At Shepherd’s Bush Market one of the signal plates appears to be left unbagged but this is in fact a structure identification plate which goes to show how methodical one has to be when ‘bagging’.

Wood Lane

Wood Lane is a very modern station, completely out of character of the rest of the line, which was opened in 2008 to cater for the adjacent new shopping centre.

The southbound signal at this station must have had a sighting issue as there is a permanent blind installed above the now-redundant signal – one of the advantages of getting rid of signals is that signal-sighting issues just go away.

Latimer Road

Latimer Road station has a famously inappropriate name nowadays as it is around 500 metres from the current Latimer Road. By Hammersmith & City line standards it is a quiet station. On the first day of public ATO operation the number of rail staff generally exceeded the number of passengers. This was because every driver on this weekend was supervised between Latimer Road and Hammersmith. This meant driver instructors would leave the cab of a northbound train and cross over to the other platform to wait at the far end for the next train they would supervise back to Hammersmith.

It was reminiscent of Thameslink last May when a lot of drivers did not have route knowledge to drive through the central section. They had to be accompanied by one of a roving group of drivers with the appropriate route knowledge.

The other relevant thing about Latimer Road was that as it is the end of ATO there has to be a sign to remind the driver of this. So northbound there is a signal at the end of the platform – the first one encountered from Hammersmith – complete with a sign to indicate to the driver that he is leaving an ATO area. The sign is expected to be short-lived, with removal expected within four months.

A curiosity is the repeater signal, now bagged of course, on the southbound platform. This would have originally been installed primarily for the benefit of the guard but, of course, there hasn’t been a guard for years.

Often these were left in place as they were still of benefit to the driver and it was cheaper to maintain them than remove them.

The immediate future

ATO on the SSR seems to have passed its first tests in public service. Of course, Sunday is generally a quieter day passenger-wise and with the line advertised as closed, the first-run was especially quiet. But a quirk of the H&C and Circle lines is that the service frequency on a Sunday afternoon is the same as during Monday to Friday peak hours. Consequently, it served as a solid test for the peak.

It has indeed turned out that there were few problems during the week following and those that have manifested appear to have mainly been teething troubles. So the implementation of this first small section appears to have been a success. It will be interesting to see how long the signals and other redundant paraphernalia remain in place.

The biggest problem on the opening Sunday afternoon appeared to be the slightly erratic service characterised mostly by the bunching of southbound trains, but also by the occasional apparent cancellation leading to large gaps of up to six minutes and maybe more. This was probably down to a lack of drivers (including driver instructors) during this period where there were two people in the cab between Latimer Road and Hammersmith.

This is a ‘look on the ground as it is’ report of the start of ATO on the SSR. Next we will look at why it took so long to get here and what the future plans are.

Meanwhile, if one article on the opening of this section isn’t enough for you, there were excellent reports by Diamond Geezer on the opening day and by Mike Horne later on a visit during the first week. There is also a related article on Hammersmith Signal Cabin by MoreToJack.

Written by Pedantic of Purley